I couldn’t remember – leave alone identify – Charlie Davis when he walked into the bar at the Queen’s Park Oval. He looked older than 67. There was a slight limp in his walk, a lisp in his voice, and he wore spectacles. The face was still boyish in some ways. The laughter was definitely boyish, a chuckle that was filled with innocence. There is no better way to describe that lovely laugh.
And he still remembers nearly everything. He averaged 54.20 in Tests but got caught in the raw end of the transition period in West Indies cricket and drifted out of the international stage. He remembered his average but rarely spoke about himself. It was always about his team-mates. Joyous, fun, happy memories. A man you could spend hours chatting with. He doesn’t drink. He never drank. Always just a glass of Coke, he says. He had one Coke; some of us downed ten drinks, and he kept reeling out the stories till we were stumbling drunk. It was an intoxicating evening. We had the great Lance Gibbs for company too, and he had held the stage for a couple of hours before Charlie entered, but that story is for another night. This is about Charlie. Sorry, my bad. With Charlie, it’s never about him. It’s always about the others.
“Touring with the West Indies team was a psychological experience,” Charlie says. “There were men totally illiterate, men who had Masters degrees. One fella had five O-Levels but never made a decision in his life!” You immediately felt the evening was going to be fun. One more dark rum please. Thank you.
He starts with Rohan Kanhai walking into the stadium at Bourda in Guyana. “Babulal had one look at the wicket and went, ‘People get out here?’ There is no such thing as getting out in Guyana, you know. The first match Kanhai ever played there he got 294 not out. ‘Only time you get out is the only time you never see the ball,’ he said. ‘If you practise often enough, you see all.’ Kanhai used to practise all that time. He bat, he bat, he bat all the time! Rohan flicked the balls to covers you know. He flicked it all the time.”
Charlie is famous for running out his captain, and idol, Garry Sobers in the 1969 Lord’s Test. He recalls the incident with great fondness. “Garry just said, ‘F*** man Charlie,’ as he went past me. So I tell myself, hold on, it’s better to stay in here than get out and go to the dressing room.”
He stayed put for 371 minutes to make his maiden hundred. At Lord’s. He had to go to the dressing room during the break and was confronted by Basil Butcher. “Butch tells me, ‘The skipper don’t run singles,’ and I went, ‘You are telling me this after six weeks in England!’” Again, that lovely laughter. “Garry was nice to me, you know. He doesn’t hold any grudges. In fact he made me sit, brought out the lunch and said, ‘Don’t remove your pads yet. Bat on!’”
How was it playing with all those legends? “You just do what you were told to do. Once, Charlie Griffith wanted a knock. I said forget it, he bats at 10 and he wants a knock! Joe Carew tells me to do it. So I go there. I pelted one at him. Griffith said, ‘Why are you pelting at me?’ I go, ‘Why shouldn’t I? You pelted all the time at me! You beat my chest like a road map.’ He nearly killed me with his bowling you know!”
He was still at school when he first faced the hostile Griffith. He warms up to the memory with a quiet chuckle before saying, “It was terrifying. I had scored a hundred in my first game in Guyana. So before the Trinidad game, they went, ‘Send him here. Let’s f*** the wonder boy here!’ As I was batting, I remember thinking, ‘Who sent me here?! I should have played ping-pong you know! I would go back and across. I would keep out the yorker. I would nudge the balls to fine-leg and behind the wicket. I made 50-odd. Griffith kept getting angry and he kept hitting me. It was fun.”
Charlie remembers a banquet thrown for all the West Indian players, past and present, after a tour of England where Kanhai was imperious, cutting Fred Trueman and ruling the tour. “I ask the former player Conrad Hunte about Kanhai’s batting on tour, in that banquet,” Charlie says. “Hunte said simply, ‘Charlie, Rohan is a good player, what did you expect?’ It’s the best compliment I have ever heard from one player to another. ‘Good player’. It’s one hell of a compliment.”
That Lord’s hundred, where he ran out Sobers, was a slow knock and Charlie calls it one of his “worst innings”. “I had about 70 singles. I think I played every ball that John Snow bowled and he didn’t like the idea. They gave Peter Parfitt one over and he is a bowler who shouldn’t be bowling in a Fet (festival exhibition) match you know. A rum match. I go down the track and bang. Bang. Two fours and he was taken off, and Snow had to come back again. He wasn’t happy.”
His best innings, he says, came fagainst New Zealand when he had to farm the strike from Garry Sobers. They were trying to save the game. “As I go in they tell me, you have to save us the Test and I go, ‘You have f***ing Sobers and you want me to save the game. You are putting pressure on me or what? I am just a young boy.’ They said your technique is right and you like to bat. There was a left-arm spinner who was bowling very well and there was a rough outside off for Sobers. Garry don’t play dead you know. Bang. Bang. They picked a boy just to catch Sobers; he edged one but it fell off that boy’s chest. Glenn Turner was shocked.”
Charlie is still in awe of Sobers. The best lines of the evening came in praise of Sobers. Sample this. “The problem with Garry was that he was too modest. He didn’t know how special he was. He expected us to bat like him. And catch like him. He thought all of us were like him you know. He would come in and say, 'I will get a 150, Kanhai you give me a 100, Charlie you give me a 75'. That was it. That was the plan. No self-doubt.”
“Garry could catch a blur you know. He used to be close at leg slip , at the back pocket of the batsmen, and catch blurs. Once a batsman flicked hard off Lance and Sobers just plucks his hand out and takes it so easily. The batsman couldn’t believe it and Garry said you were out. He could catch a blur. He is not normal. He is definitely not normal.” The voice was soaked in awe.
He had another story. “In the 1969 tour of Australia, in a game at Perth against Western Australia, somebody hit Butch [Basil Butcher] in the chest with a short ball. It stirred Garry into action. He went from 29 to 132 in half an hour! A team-mate had never seen batting like this and asks me, ‘He bats like this all the time?’ He is Garry Sobers, you know. What he can do, we can’t even think of doing.”
The sky turned dark. Dark rum and beer was still pouring in from the bar. Out in the middle, the Trinidad pitch lay under covers. It was time for Charlie and Lance to go for dinner. Time enough for another Charlie story.
“Once I was batting against Prasanna and he was a very smart bowler, you know. I went down the track and banged. He flighted it up again and I went bang. The third time he tossed it up and I went down the track again. But, but where is the ball? It’s not there! It was the floater, the drifter he bowled, you know. I just drive the bat straight and connect with it. Pras asks me, ‘How did you pick it?’ I go, ‘I didn’t. I couldn’t see the ball. So I guessed it was the other one!'"
It’s time for one last story. One for the road. “I once did dirty in England. We were playing in Oxford and it’s typical England, you know. It’s raining all day. So the Oxford captain asks us whether we play any indoor game. How about a game of table-tennis? We had Foster who was a champion ping-pong player in Jamaica. I used to play it competitively. We don’t let the English know that. They said let’s play for a case of beer. We won 16 cases!” And Charlie slips into that ever-so lovely throaty schoolboy chuckle as he slips away into the night.
Sriram Veera is a former staff writer at ESPNcricinfo